Pulp Fiction: Making New out of the Old

To understand a film’s structure is the first step in understanding a film’s meaning. Few filmmakers are as audacious and original than that of Quentin Tarantino. His use of music, cool and breezy dialogue, and shocking, often impactful violence has changed the landscape of modern cinema, never having witnessed a filmmaker so brash and proudly indulgent. With Tarantino now a household name, it’s difficult to remember a time before Kill Bill, Django Unchained, or Inglourious Basterds. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino changed nearly ever facet and convention of the cinematic artform with his second feature, Pulp Fiction. A film that is so iconic, so well beloved, that a viewer can easily be overwhelmed and even intimidated by its popularity. While his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, contained several elements that went on to be common traits in future films, it wasn’t until Pulp Fiction where those elements were more finely tuned and used more effectively. However, these very things that made Pulp such an iconic film would have fallen on deaf ears, or seen as simply unremarkable, if it hadn’t been for structurally odd, yet iconic, storytelling.

While Tarantino is no stranger to non-linear narratives, his films essentially use a conventional, three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end. In other words, the ending of the film is the last thing that happens. Aldo Raine stares in awe at his “masterpiece”; The Bride and her daughter are happily reunited; and Django and Broomhilda ride off together after blowing up Candyland. Pulp Fiction’s ending however, would fall in the middle of chronological events. Jules and Vincent Vega leaving the diner (with “BAD MOTHERFUCKER” wallet intact) would barely be included in a traditional film’s second act. Instead, the film tells its stories through a series of chapters that are told almost completely out of order, with various characters crossing each other’s paths along the way. Technically speaking, Bruce Willis’ segment in the film would act as the finale, and is instead placed in the end of the second act. This unorthodox structure helps give the film a compelling and, more importantly, unpredictable pace that breathes life into worn out stories.

These characters and stories are, for lack of a better term, are old, and Tarantino is keenly aware of this fact. The first image of the film is a dictionary definition of the word “Pulp”:pulpdefinition

 

Even before showing a single frame of film, Tarantino is showing his acknowledgement of how these stories typically are: inconsequential, lifeless and boring. It is with the film’s unique structure where he gives life and relevance to stories that have been repeatedly told for ages. Pulp Fiction is a tribute and revival to the stories of old, showing a hitman with a love of burgers, complete with an existential crisis. The poster girl, Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace is the archetypal gangster’s wife, but it’s Tarantino’s screenplay and knack for character development that helps alleviate a tired shell of a character to one of cinema’s most endearing roles. Pulp Fiction is often credited to have perfected the concept and template of the postmodern film, which is a kind of film that strays away from narrative conventions and makes a wholly new picture. Such a definition points to why Pulp Fiction is as enduring now as it was back in 1994. Traditional films are obsessed and terrified of the notion that their story may grow boring or overlong, hoping that the story can gradually build and result into a spectacular climax. Tarantino knows the hand he’s dealt with in Pulp Fiction. At the slightest hint of mundanity, the film abruptly fades to black and tells another, seemingly unrelated story from the one previous, keeping the momentum from what came before. His mission to make new from old is the DNA of this film, from the Jack Rabbit Slim’s diner with various actors portraying some of pop culture’s greatest hits of yonder, like Richard Nixon and Marilyn Monroe, to the iconically eclectic soundtrack spanning from Rock ‘n Roll to Soul.

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Pulp Fiction is a landmark in original filmmaking. Quentin Tarantino deconstructs pop culture, and the audience’s knowledge of it, and creates a motion picture that is in a genre unto itself. Through all the retrospective pomp and circumstance, it is easy to forget the true, understated mastery of its storytelling. It is Tarantino’s awareness of the stories’ limited longevity that makes the film’s structure endlessly vital to its eventual success and enduring relevance. Had it been told by conventional means, its brilliance and acute self-awareness would be suppressed to a tragic minimum. Pulp Fiction is greater than the sum of its parts because of how the story is told, turning what was once thought to be pastiche into true cinematic ingenuity.

6 Hidden Gems of 2018 (So Far)

As with just about every year, 2018 has provided a ton of amazing films that are not only entertaining, but innovate and progress the very art of filmmaking. Having just reached the hallway mark of the year, there has already been several films that I would absolutely give a perfect score. That being said, this list won’t be a “best of” like the ones I’ve posted prior, but rather a list of films that I feel haven’t gotten the attention they deserve (and may or may not make the Top 10 end-of-year list). Sure Infinity War and Incredibles 2 are fantastic pieces of entertainment, but those films are essentially money making machines, hardly in the need of any more exposure.

These movies will not be ranked, so their placements on the list won’t represent their superiority or inferiority to other films.

 

Isle of Dogs

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Rex: To the North; a long rickety causeway over a noxious sludge marsh, leading to a radioactive landfill polluted by toxic chemical garbage. That’s our destination. Get ready to jump.

I know I’ve already written a review for this, but damn if I don’t love Isle of Dogs. Wes Anderson’s latest oddity is yet another original, quirky, and offbeat adventure that is an absolute delight from beginning to end. Armed with the underappreciated method of stop motion animation, Anderson and co. deliver a beautifully animated visual fest that is still the year’s best animated film (sorry, Incredibles 2). Whether it be the reliably odd dialogue, perfectly framed shots or its ridiculously star-studded cast, Wes Anderson’s fingerprints are all over this project, reminding us of his natural instinct to deliver films that are aimed to please and charm. Also, who doesn’t love dogs?

 

You Were Never Really Here

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Nina: Joe, wake up. It’s a beautiful day.

Arguably the most simply plotted film of the list, as well as the most divisive, You Were Never Really Here is a character piece at heart, and a disturbing one at that. Depicted here is Joe, played effortlessly by Joaquin Phoenix, a hitman of sorts who specializes in saving abducted young girls. Make a long story short, a job goes wrong, and we learn more of Joe and his tortured past in the process. While it may be initially jarring to see what that pasts ultimately consists of, and how it’s taken a toll on his psyche, this is a textbook character study at the highest degree. This sort of dark, disturbed territory is familiar footing for writer/director Lynne Ramsay, making a film that is so subdued yet invitingly cavalier with its flirtations of the violent and demented. You Were Never Really Here might prove to be an uneasy viewing for some, if not most, but is easily one of the most well realized and chaotically focused look at the combustible tendencies of its protagonist.

Unsane

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Sawyer: I’m not fucking crazy!

Not an incredibly quotable film, but just the way Unsane was made deserves a viewing. Steven Soderbergh’s latest film post-retirement sees a woman wrongfully admitted to a mental institution after a simple therapy session. Later on more is revealed about the woman, played by the excellent Claire Foy, as she starts to uncover the true motives of the institution, if there is any. While the premise may leave a bit to be desired, the fact that the entirety of the film was filmed on an iPhone 7 Plus camera is such an intriguing method of filmmaking, especially for a director of Soderbergh’s caliber. I’m sure that a ton of indie films filmed on a cell phone already exist, but for an Oscar-winning director using that avenue of filmmaking is commendable, and it’s quite impressive to see what’s captured. Though it’s instantly noticeable that we aren’t looking through the lens of an IMAX camera, Soderbergh works magic with the phone camera, presenting a story that is told through a filter and lens that we are all familiar with, outweighing Unsane’s familiarity with an intimate sense of dread.

Tully

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Marlo: Your twenties are great, but then your thirties come around the corner like a garbage truck at 5:00 a.m. 
Tully: Girls heal
Marlo: No, we don’t. We might look like we’re all better, but if you look close, we’re covered in concealer.

An ode to hardworking and overworked mothers, Tully is just wonderful. Wonderful performances, music, writing, directing, and I think that was what Jason Reitman wants the viewer to see. Beginning with the birth of her third child, Charlize Theron’s Marlo is mentally destroyed with the difficulties of motherhood, parenting three children who are each at a differently difficult part of their childhood. She finally submits to hiring a night nanny, the title character played by a miraculous Mackenzie Davis. Marlo finally has time for herself, whether it be to sleep, or even interact with people who she didn’t birth. This renewed sense of wonder and optimism is contagious, with Theron and Davis having lovable chemistry with one another, making their interactions with each other compelling and endlessly enjoyable. Tully is Reitman’s best film in years.

First Reformed

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Michael: Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?
Toller: Who can know the mind of God?

Christian films have a tendency to, uhh, shall I say, suck. Even more so than horror films, the margin of error for Christian films is so huge that it’s practically impossible to make a competently made Christian film that has fewer holes in its logic than Swiss cheese. They’re never made to convince or convert cynics into believers, being the epitome of preaching to the choir.

First Reformed, however? This could be the greatest faith-based film ever produced. I’d rather not delve into the story details of the film, but I will say that the most refreshing aspect of this film is that while there is certainly a protagonist to this story, the idea of there being a hero is entirely moot. Where other films celebrate the idea of Divine Intervention, First Reformed instead asks the questions that many believers are trialed with. How can someone look at the horrors that engulf this world and not question a few things? To tackle religion in a film requires complexity and sensitivity, which the vast majority of faith-based films disgracefully lack. Paul Schrader, whose penmanship is responsible for some of cinema’s most influential and essential films, once again delivers a story of conflicted faith, not out of flirtation with the devil, but out an urgent assurance of one’s faith.

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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 Fred Rogers: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Well, I suppose it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you.

 

We end on the highest of high notes. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary about the life of Fred Rogers and his show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, one of the most iconic and beloved children’s shows ever made. The trailer alone is a tear-jerker, and the film is 95 minutes of pure wholesomeness in the best way possible. While it may be seen as a tribute to Fred Rogers, the film does not have a case of hero-worship. The documentary offers insight into Rogers’ personal life, and some of the inner turmoil he carried with him throughout the show’s production. In a time where so many celebrities and actors are being ousted for outrageous and egregious behavior, it is a godsend that Fred Rogers remains a figure of kindness and empathy, now more than ever. He viewed children as human beings, people who may be unfamiliar with complex emotions, but are still burdened with them nonetheless. He never talked down to children, often viewing his child guests and the viewer as his equal. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is such an uplifting delight, a glimmer of sunshine in a world that has only known rainy days.